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Sunday, October 26, 2014
Why ISIS is not as strong as it appears
The spectacular advance of ISIS across Iraq and Syria has created an aura of invincibility around this organization, which is unfounded. Despite capturing Iraq's second city, Mosul, and coming within a few miles of the capital Baghdad and despite taking over huge swaths of Syria, the power of ISIS rests more on the weaknesses of others and the cooperation of its local allies, than it does on its own intrinsic strength. Indeed, what appear to be its strengths happen also to be the roots of its weaknesses.
ISIS opponents like the Iraqi Army and the Free Syrian Army fighting Assad (FSA) disintegrated in the face of its attack largely because these two forces were riddled by internal divisions or based on sectarian foundations. The FSA was also totally under-equipped as a fighting force and lacked any coherent ideology or political programme, other than overthrowing Assad and vague talk of democracy. To make matters worse, it undermined itself by refusing to recognize the rights of the Syrian Kurds to autonomy, who are probably the most motivated and effective of the groups fighting ISIS.
The Iraqi Army, on the other hand, was a largely Shiite-government tool which was poorly-trained and riddled with corruption, operating more as a criminal gang exploiting and attacking the Sunni population. Being Shiite-dominated its troops had no motivation to shed their blood to defend Sunni areas from ISIS attack. Furthermore, it had no local support and was seen as an occupying force by Iraq Sunnis, which had been used by Baghdad to violently suppressed their legitimate and peaceful protests against the US-backed, Shiite government. Therefore, local Sunnis stepped aside when ISIS invaded and the Iraqi Army simply disintegrated, fleeing the battlefield and leaving huge areas of the country and its military equipment to the jihadists without a fight.
Such was the hatred towards the Iraqi government among Sunnis, that local tribal leaders, religious groups, political leaders and even secular opposition groups like the Baathist, Saddam Hussein loyalists of the Naqshbandi Army, struck up alliances with ISIS to jointly govern areas under the ISIS flag. Consequently, the apparent triumphant blitzkrieg by which ISIS took control of large parts of Iraq and Syria happened because it faced virtually no serious opposition to its advance and was even helped by indigenous Sunni forces. For many among the local population, ISIS appeared to be the lesser evil to the Iraqi Army. Therefore, there was little civilian opposition and the overwhelming majority either acquiesced, looked on with dread or fled its invading forces.
However, herein lies the first and perhaps most important vulnerability for ISIS. That is that no army of occupation can sustain itself without the support of the local population, which it most certainly doesn't have in either Syria or Iraq. Any enthusiasm for ISIS is evaporating with the reality of what its rule means. Its extremist, fundamentalist actions are an anathema to the traditionally quasi-secular/moderate Islamic culture of the peoples of both countries. The restrictions on women's clothing, the banning of TV, sports, smoking and alcohol are things which foster animosity towards them and worse still the regime of terror and barbarism such as beheadings, Crucifixions, stoning and amputations disgust people and engender hatred towards the fanatics.
But, this regime of terror is not an example of strength, it is an expression of their weakness. Lacking enthusiastic support, ISIS is forced to terrorize locals into conforming to their rule. It puts the heads of opponents on spikes for people to see the consequences of any opposition. It is now also recruiting among children, but this is also an example of its shortcomings - that it is unable to recruit enough volunteer fighters from the local adult population. Furthermore, in many important areas, it puts the policing of the towns in the hands of foreign fighters, most of whom, like the Chechens, are the most fanatical and who speak little or no Arabic, thus not exposing their own indigenous forces to influence by a disillusioned populace.
Furthermore, the Sunni groups in Iraq now supporting ISIS do not share the majority of its ideas, goals or methods. Most see this alliance as a mutually beneficial, but temporary marriage of convenience, which has facilitated the liberation of Sunni areas from the Shiite Baghdad government. However, most are not interested in creating a Caliphate with Syria and have the goal of securing an autonomous or fully independent Sunni state within Iraqi borders.
In reality, the alliance between ISIS and these groups is extremely fragile. Clashes have already taken place between the Naqshbandi Army and ISIS and with tribes in the province of Kirkuk. Once the alliance breaks down, ISIS will face an uprising of tribes and other groups, which will amount to a war of liberation, and which it will be unable to contain. When the Sunni tribes rose up against Al Qaida in Iraq in 2005, they not only drove them out of their power base in the Al Anbar region, but left the group isolated and ineffective for years, until it was able to take advantage of the Syrian Civil War to rebuild its organisation in both Syria and Iraq.
In Syria, things are somewhat different, because events there have developed through civil war. ISIS grew because of the superiority of its weaponry over the ill-equipped and fragmented forces of the FSA. It and other jihadist groups attracted hundreds, if not thousands of anti-Assad fighters just because they were “the guys with the guns.” Secular or moderate Muslim fighters found themselves having to desert their positions because they lacked the fire power to fight back or in many cases they simply ran out of bullets. This allowed ISIS to grow rapidly at the expense of other anti-Assad forces, who showed little ability to fight the regime.
These problems arose because the US and Arab powers refused to equip FSA groups, which included Islamists of varying inclinations, for fear that the weapons would fall into jihadist hands. Ironically, that eventually meant that ISIS became the dominant opposition group. It and other jihadists aligned to Al Qaeda were being supplied with weapons and money from wealthy individuals in the Gulf region and Arab states like Qatar and United Arab Emirates.
Turkey also played an important role in reinforcing the power of ISIS, one because it wanted to see Assad overturned and two, because ISIS weakened Kurdish forces, which they feared might later expand their war for liberation into Turkey as well. The Turks, therefore, turned a blind eye to foreign jihadist fighters transiting to Syria through it territory, allowed ISIS to sell its oil across the Turkish border and even allowed injured ISIS fighters to journey to Turkey for medical treatment.
Along its Syrian border, which is populated by Kurds, Turkey preferred if ISIS wiped out the Kurdish fighters, rather than allow them to establish an independent Kurdish region, which might fuel separatist sentiments among Kurds in Turkey itself. They also didn't want to allow a battle-hardened Kurdish military force to emerge which would worsen the problem. That is fundamentally why it has refused to help the Kurds fighting today in Kobani.
The Kurds, however, represent one of the most effective anti-ISIS forces in Syria and in Iraq. The reason being that they have an historical motivation which involves their centuries-old fight for the right to national self-determination and an independent or autonomous state of their own. The leftist roots of the Turkish Kurd Workers party also gives them an ideological motivation to oppose ISIS, symbolized by the prominent role of their Women's Battalions fighting the jihadists.
Perhaps ISIS' key strength, however, has been its fanatical self-belief. Napoleon once said that “in war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” The original success of the group was related to the fact that it was small band of fanatics, who believed in their moral superiority. Al Qaida and similar jihadist groups have a cult-like character with their indoctrination camps, their veneration of mystical leaders like bin Laden and now al-Baghdadi of ISIS, their readiness to die for the cause and because they see themselves as the “chosen ones,” who are on “a mission from God.” This is what gives them their fighting strength, even more than the impressive armoury they have taken from the Iraqi Army and others.
Many fighters are attracted to it because it appears to be the group most implacably opposed to Imperialism and because the Caliphate seems to offer a new form of society that is the antithesis of modern, capitalist society, much in the way that many people were attracted to socialism in the past. Indeed, you could say that bin Laden became a sort of “Islamic Che Guevara” to many radical Muslim youth. Al Qaida and ISIS, of course, are extreme right-wing organisations, rather than leftist groups and are often referred to correctly as Islamo-fascists.
However, ISIS is not the heterogeneous group it appears to be. The jihadists have had a number of splits and disputes, firstly of ISIS from Al Qaida and then armed confrontations between ISIS and the remaining Al Qaida group the al-Nusra Front. One former Al Qaida affiliate group,
previously aligned to al-Nusra, called Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa or the al-Raqqa Brigade, is even fighting ISIS alongside the Kurds in Kobani!
As ISIS grows as a military force so the central control of the core jihadists declines and could also prove to be its Achilles heal. Although they are estimated to have between 20-30,000 fighters, the hardcore of “believers” is probably no more than 5-7,000. Most of the others are with it because it is the “winning team”. The commitment of this wider layer of troops to fundamentalism and ISIS methods is far less than is sometimes imagined and this can be the source for splits in Iraq such as we have seen among jihadists in Syria.
Jihadist groups groups can only thrive in reactionary situations of civil war, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. When progressive movements take place their influence dwindles and they become isolated from events. This is what happened in the Arab Revolutions in 2011, in which Al Qaida played no part and was considered an irrelevancy by the masses.
Once an uprising, or if you like a revolution, takes place against ISIS from below, tens of thousands of their troops and supporters will desert them. They will shrivel and split once they are forced into retreat and doubts will surface even among their cadres about their ideals, their mission and the credentials of their leaders. Faced with a mass uprising of ordinary Muslims against their fundamentalist regime, the cadres will begin to loose faith in themselves and of their role as the chosen soldiers of Allah. Schisms, in-fighting and demoralization will set in, undermining them as a religious, political and military force.
This is the only way they will be defeated. Western Imperialism has neither the moral authority or the military capacity to do so. The US admits that an air offensive cannot stop them. The White House talks of training thousands of moderate Syrian fighters to combat them, but they forget that they spent 10 years building and training the Iraq Army and we know what happened to them.
Some have suggested that boots on the ground is the only solution, but even when the US had 160,000 troops in Iraq in 2005, it could not drive out Al Qaida from al-Anbar province. Only the local Sunni tribes were able to do that. Likewise today, it is only the indigenous peoples of the region, of whatever religious or ethnic group, who have the power to undermine and overthrow ISIS.
Finally, one other crucial factor will also come into play is the economy For the moment, the economy of the occupied areas survives largely due to criminal activities, like smuggling, theft, kidnapping and extortion. The spoils of war are keeping it and its army afloat, in particular the seizure of banks in Mosul and elsewhere, which has netted ISIS billions of dollars in cash. There is also the revenue from the captured oilfields. It is selling oil on the black market and there is no doubt that not only shady merchants, but capitalist enterprises are surreptitiously doing business with it in surrounding countries.
But to stabilize the Caliphate politically, ISIS will have to satisfy the needs and expectations of the population in the long term. The jihadists have an illusion of creating some form of state which conforms to the rules of a medieval, feudal economy in the modern age of global capitalism. This is an impossibility. There is no “Golden Age” of Islamic prosperity around the corner. It will have to submit to the laws of world capitalism. Not even the great economic hermit of North Korea can any longer ignore the need to trade and cooperate with the forces of Western Imperialism.
So what will the Caliphate do to survive? Will it trade with the Satanic West, will it make contracts with American oil companies, import cars from Germany, invite foreign investment, and create its own currency based on what - the dollar or the Euro? Will it create a capitalist economy, with a ruling economic class, a private banking system and international trade agreements with powers it has promised to destroy?
Or will it, like Pol Pot in Cambodia return the country to Year Zero? Will it empty the cities and send the people into the fields, re-establish serfdom and slavery (which it is already doing) and reintroduce the horse and cart and camel as the main means of transport?
The only other alternative will be to nationalize the banks and main industries and introduce a planned economy in a caricature of the old, secular Stalinist states which it detested. Either way, a ruling bureaucracy or a new ruling economic class will arise and it will be made up of its former fighters, who will have to be lavishly compensated for their loyalty.
Whatever it does, there is no chance of ISIS creating a stable economy in a world where even the major, wealthy capitalist powers are racked by crises and all the old Communist regimes have collapsed. Illusions in a new fairy tale, fundamentalist regime will quickly evaporate. Poverty, inequality, corruption and crime will flourish and the Caliphate will differ only in name from the rotten neighbouring regimes which it despises. If ISIS is not overthrown now, these conditions are sure to lay the basis for a new revolution.